Back-to-school backpacks carry supplies, food to children

Bob Foreman, Communities In Schools representative for Knox Middle School, opens a pencil case included in one of 35 backpacks of supplies donated by United Christian Fellowship Church International. The backpacks will go to economically disadvantaged students at Knox Middle.
Bob Foreman, Communities In Schools representative for Knox Middle School, opens a pencil case included in one of 35 backpacks of supplies donated by United Christian Fellowship Church International. The backpacks will go to economically disadvantaged students at Knox Middle.

SALISBURY — Backpacks will carry more than just books for some students going back to school in Rowan County.

Local organizations are working to fill them with school supplies and food to help children in need.


“We’ve got so many kids in the county — we’ve got about 50 percent receiving free or reduced lunch,” said Vicky Slusser, executive director of Communities In Schools (CIS). “Just based on those numbers, potentially 10,000 kids could possibly need supplies.”

The backpacks provide students with pencils, erasers, crayons, notebooks, paper and other supplies they will use nearly every day in school.

“Right now, we need just about everything,” Slusser said. “Our donations are way down.”

Last year, Slusser said, the nonprofit organization collected enough school supplies for more than 500 children by the end of August.

As of this past Tuesday, it had enough for 300.

Slusser said she’s not sure whether the slowdown is because the recession is still hitting families hard or because they’re being asked to give every time they turn around.

“If more people are struggling, it makes sense there’s going to be fewer people able to give,” Slusser said. “That’s an indication of more kids needing help.”

How to help: Through the end of August, Walmart stores in North Carolina are holding “Build-a-Backpack” drives for CIS. To help the local organization, shoppers can drop school supply items into collection bins inside the entrance of the Salisbury and Kannapolis stores.

Slusser said the organization gave out a total of more than 4,000 supplies last year, including items like hand sanitizer and tissue boxes that were given to teachers instead of directly to students.

Distribution: Communities In Schools will be holding its distribution day on Saturday, Aug. 24, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the old YMCA building at 220 N. Fulton St.

“Parents have to have the children that are receiving school supplies with them,” Slusser said. “We don’t do any kind of income verification, because we don’t have the infrastructure to be able to do that. I really hope that the people who bring children are really the ones that need it.”

The children also must be enrolled in the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

Those who can’t make the distribution event can contact the organization or their school to request help. Slusser said CIS continues to collect and distribute supplies for another couple of weeks.

For more information about Communities In Schools (a United Way organization) or to give to the backpack program, call 704-797-0210 or visit rowan.communitiesinschools.org

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There’s still time to help before the public schools start Aug. 26, and individuals are coming together to make sure local students have what they need.

On Wednesday, United Christian Fellowship Church International (UCFCI) in Salisbury added 35 backpacks with school supplies to Communities In Schools’ collection. They will go to Knox Middle School students.

The church is also giving 35 backpacks to Knollwood Elementary School and 41 to North Rowan High School through CIS.

In addition to these 111 backpacks, the church has said it will continue to give school supplies throughout the academic year.

“Instead of just giving out items, we wanted to partner with an organization who could actually identify a real need and give them to students who really need it,” said Trina Moore, director of outreach at UCFCI.

For the past two years the Outreach Ministry of UCFCI has “adopted” the schools of their student parishioners, providing assistance to teachers in their classrooms at Knollwood Elementary School and duty free lunch for teachers at Hurley Elementary School.

This year, it decided to expand its reach and hopes to keep doing so, Moore said.

“We wanted to come out of our four walls and meet needs just like Jesus did,” she said.

Moore, who is also a gospel artist, has agreed to donate a portion of royalties from her songs to the outreach ministry. Her website is www.trinamooremusic.com.

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Food: Communities In Schools also participates in a different kind of backpack program — one that sends children home each weekend with a bag full of food.

For the second year, Rowan Rotary Club and the Salvation Army of Rowan County are partnering to offer this program at North Rowan Middle School.

“We chose that because, unfortunately, that’s one of the schools that has a high rate for free and reduced lunches,” said Melanie Thompson, a Rowan Rotary member who helped start the program last year.

Every Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, the Salvation Army goes to North Rowan Middle to give food to CIS representatives.

CIS then packs the food and gives it to students it selects based on need.

“It has stuff like noodles, spaghetti sauce, some juice box drinks, some canned meats, some vegetables and sometimes little snack chips or breakfast bars,” Thompson said. “We find out how many kids are in the family, and we give them enough to feed them all.”

The food is supplied by the Salvation Army, and Rowan Rotary provides backpacks and other donations.

Thompson said the program serves 25 students right now, and the organizations that sponsor it would love to do more.

How to help: To give food or money to the backpack program at North Rowan Middle, Thompson said donors can either to drop off items at the school with a Communities In Schools representative or contact Chasy Morse with the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army of Rowan County, located at 620 Bringle Ferry Road, can be reached at 704-636-6491.

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Food for Thought: At 10 schools in Rowan County, nonprofit organization Food For Thought also sends students home with backpacks filled with nonperishable, single-serve food items.

Amy Welch, Food For Thought founder and current board member, said the group started out serving just 12 students in 2008.

Last year, they sent backpacks home with 210 students. But Welch says the need still hasn’t been met.

What to donate: Food For Thought accepts donations of both food and funds, but “we do request very specific food items,” Welch said.

Those items include single-serving, shelf-stable foods that are easy to prepare like instant oatmeal, instant grits, single-serving cereals, canned soup, canned pasta, pudding, microwaveable popcorn, canned vegetables and canned fruit.

The group also tries to make healthy choices, like using 100 percent juice instead of flavored sugar drinks, and granola bars instead of cookies or powdered donuts.

Welch said the program is made possible through “a coalition of community members, civic organizations and religious organizations.”

Several churches provide donations and volunteers, Welch said, and some schools and preschools hold food drives to benefit the program.

Food For Thought purchases items in bulk from Food Lion, which offers a special price slightly higher than cost. With the help of Milford Hills Methodist Church, it collects the food and brings it to various churches and schools to fill the backpacks.

Currently, Food for Thought operates in Knox Middle School and Cleveland, Granite Quarry, Hanford Dole, Knollwood, Koontz, North Rowan, Overton, Shive and Woodleaf elementary schools. Welch said the organization hopes to expand into five more schools this year, for a total of 15.

Food For Thought chooses the schools it serves by comparing the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. It calculates the total number of students it can afford to serve, and then allocates the backpacks in proportion to that percentage.

Students who receive the backpacks are anonymous to Food For Thought. That decision is left up to school staff and Communities In Schools, which works with Food For Thought to distribute the backpacks.

“We don’t have the resources to supply every child in a food insecure home with a bag, so we ask that they choose the ones that are most in need of the program,” Welch said.

How to help: For more information about N.C. Food For Thought, go to ncfoodforthought.org, search for the organization on Facebook or visit its office at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 131 W. Council St. in Salisbury.

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